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Pope Francis bringing synodality back to church

By Michael Swan

Catholic Register

12/31/2014

TORONTO (CCN) — Giving advice to the pope is not a one-way street. It begins with Pope Francis giving advice to his advisers — including Canadian theologian Moira McQueen.

McQueen was in Rome Dec. 4 to 7 for an initial meeting of the new International Theological Commission roster. Toronto’s McQueen was one of five women appointed this summer to the body of 30 theologians, each appointed for a five-year term to advise the Holy See and the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

This ninth edition of the International Theological Commission has been asked to report back to the congregation and the Vatican on the issue of synodality — a theological term for the traditional process of church governance via shared authority among local churches “walking together.”

Pope Francis has already begun significant reforms to the Vatican department called the Synod of Bishops and launched the church into an unprecedented two-year, two-part synod on the family and evangelization. The topic fits right into what’s happening in the church now, McQueen said.

“What synodality is, well it’s an open question,” McQueen told The Catholic Register on her return from Rome. “That’s what we will be looking at — how far does it extend?”

Topics for discussion were not revealed to the theologians on the commission until they met Dec. 4. As one of only two moral theologians on the ITC, McQueen hadn’t arrived in Rome thinking about how synods come about and where they fit into the church.

“I had hoped it would be more about the family itself — the topics of the synod rather than the formation of the synod,” the expert in sexuality, marriage and bioethics said. “The process wasn’t so much top of mind for me.”

Given that the synod and synodality are more than a process of official meetings but rather part of the nature of the church, McQueen quickly came round to seeing its importance.

The initial ITC meeting mostly came down to handing out assignments to subgroups of theologians for the next meeting in May or June. However, the relationship between synodality and ecumenism quickly arose among members of the commission, McQueen said.

The pope spoke to the ITC just days after he returned from a visit in Turkey with Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, the spiritual head of 300 million Orthodox Christians. Synods are central to how Orthodox and Anglican churches govern themselves, and a recovery of synodality in the Roman Catholic Church has been an ecumenical issue often spoken about among theologians but rarely broached in official dialogues between churches.

A deep, serious, theological look at synods fits with the direction of Pope Francis’ reforms of the Vatican, said University of St. Michael’s College systematic theologian Rev. Darren Dias.

“Certainly it would reflect the pope’s (agenda). That is quite clear from his past statements,” said the Dominican professor. “It shouldn’t be too big a surprise, because the purpose of the ITC is to help the Holy See and the CDF to think through issues they think are important. He (Pope Francis) really believes synodality is an important thing and needs to be strengthened.”

As Medieval Europe gave way to the modern era and popes increasingly promoted themselves as the primary monarchs among the kings and queens of Europe, synodality in the Roman Catholic Church was sidelined. As a feature of the church, it suffered particularly after the 1870 First Vatican Council. When church fathers sought to restore synodality at the Second Vatican Council it became problematic for a church now reliant on central, Vatican authority.

“Pope Paul VI was very careful,” said Dias. “When the Dogmatic Constitution (Lumen Gentium) came out, he put a note in that he did not want the authority of the pope or the Holy See diminished too much. So, synods are largely consultative. They’re not deliberative. And I wonder whether Francis isn’t moving in the direction to give synods their proper authority.”

In addressing the ITC Dec. 5, Pope Francis did not himself wade in on the topic, though he did bring up the increasingly wide consultative net of the ITC itself. In a short address, the pope took particular note of the increased number of women on the commission, calling them “the strawberry on the cake.”

Women theologians “can detect, for the benefit of all, some unexplored aspects of the unfathomable mystery of Christ,” said the pope. “I invite you to take the best advantage of this specific contribution of women to the intelligence of faith.”

Francis also called for the ITC to add even more women in future.

While the analogy to strawberries caught McQueen off guard, she was not surprised to see increasing participation by women highlighted in the pope’s remarks.

“Before his talk, the women (on the commission) were talking at one point about how we perceive that. It’s kind of interesting that most of us don’t really think that what we say is that different, in our different fields, from what men say. I don’t think of it as very much of a gender issue,” she said. “To me, the fact is we were invited to be on the commission. That’s where it’s serious.”

McQueen herself is a good example of how more women and more international representation makes the ITC a more useful theological sounding board for the Vatican, said Dias.

“She’s got the experience of the U.K. and Canada. She’s got the experience in law. She’s got theological formation that’s North American — not out of one of the Roman schools. She has experience in bioethics, in important issues that people face every day. And she is communicating this to wide audiences,” Dias said. “She’s a person of great integrity, friendly. I think she’ll bring a lot.”

The atmosphere at the ITC meetings and the pope’s residence was one of welcome, acceptance and listening, said McQueen. CDF head Cardinal Gerhard Müller, who chairs the ITC meetings, let the theologians talk rather than trying to drive his own agenda.

“In a sense, he stayed out of it — listened rather than spoke — which is kind of interesting in terms of synodality,” McQueen said.

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